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Leader of Canadian UAW shows his mettle in Chrysler pact

Robert (Bob) White, head of the United Automobile Workers of Canada, appears to have succeeded in a campaign to end wage concessions to American automakers -- an issue that was the focus of the split between the US and the Canadian branches of the union last December. Labor agreements were reached last week between Chrysler and the UAW branches in the United States and Canada. They were the first separate pacts in the 60-year history of Chrysler. The UAW-Canada had split with its American parent union last year because of differences between Mr. White and the UAW in Detroit, under the leadership of Owen Bieber.

In a congratulatory telex to Mr. Bieber after the American UAW had signed its agreement with Chrysler, Mr. White noted that ``The fact that you have reestablished the annual improvement factor is very important and concurs with my philosophy of opposition to lump-sum payments.''

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That is a direct reference to what caused the US-Canada union split last year: The US UAW accepted lump-sum payments from General Motors, while the Canadian workers fought for a percentage increase.

White worked his way from the shop floor to being the most powerful labor leader in Canada -- and his success at the negotiating table, some say, could lead him into federal politics.

The Canadian director of the United Automobile Workers does not fit the stereotyped image of the union boss. He is soft-spoken and slim. He jogs and is politically active.

White left school at 15 to work in a plywood factory. He was a shop steward by 18 and led his first strike at 22, becoming president of a union local at 24. A series of union jobs followed, and White became head of the Canadian United Automobile Workers in 1978.

The UAW is not the biggest union in Canada -- it actually ranks fifth in size -- but under White's leadership it has become the strongest. White is the best known union leader in the country. The former chief of the UAW is Dennis McDermott, now head of the Canadian Labor Congress, roughly the equivalent of the AFL-CIO. White has a higher profile than Mr. McDermott, which is said to cause some friction between the two men.

``No Concessions'' has been the slogan for contract talks with Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. The UAW in Canada negotiated a better contract than its American counterpart last year. That caused a rift between the Toronto headquarters of the UAW and Solidarity House, UAW's head office in Detroit.

One reason the Canadian branch was able to get more money is that the Canadian dollar is worth 73 cents American. But under the terms of the auto pact between the two countries, parts made in Canada sell for US dollars once they have crossed the border.

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Earlier this year 4,000 members of the Canadian Association of Airline Employees -- ticket agents and other clerical staff -- were on strike against Air Canada. The airline wanted concessions. The union was about to buckle, but White negotiated a contract and now the airline workers are members of the UAW.

One thing that worries other union leaders is the possibility of further expansion of the UAW in Canada. The union's new constitution includes a method to help other unions merge with the UAW.

``The union movement is a social movement,'' White has said repeatedly. This underlies his politics. He has supported South African union leaders, peace groups, and the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Like British union leaders, he thinks a union should support a political party. In Britain that is the Labour Party; in Canada it is the New Democratic Party.

The popularity of the UAW leader could project him to the leadership of the New Democrats. For now that's just talk, but White would be the first trade union leader of a party that says it represents the workers but has long been dominated by intellectuals.

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